The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test

Continuing my transformation into a Western Massachusetts woo-woo hippie, this past Saturday I had my first professional Tarot card reading with Carolyn Cushing at Art of Change Tarot. That evening, my husband and I attended the last 20 minutes of Amherst’s Extravaganja festival (you really haven’t lived till you’ve seen a mom shopping for bongs with her baby in a stroller) and then we saw a fiery new documentary about young feminists fighting the campus date rape epidemic.

Hard to believe that 10 years ago, my idea of a good time was the Vision New England conference.

I remember a strange moment (well, there were a lot of strange moments) at that conference, which was a pretty typical evangelical gathering with praise bands, bestselling inspirational speakers, and a bookfair of Jesus kitsch. Keynote speaker John Eldredge was using a clip from the film “The Last of the Mohicans” to illustrate his theory that all men want to be heroes and all women want to be rescued. Wait a moment, I thought to myself. Don’t evangelicals hate godless liberal sex-crazed Hollywood? Why is it suddenly a source of eternal truth–or even factual truth? Isn’t there a chance that our desires reflect media indoctrination, rather than that the media is objectively recording our true natures?

This recursive paradox confronts me on every spiritual path I explore. The religious impulse is a yearning to connect with some all-encompassing source of life and wisdom that is greater than our individual perceptions. But what I seek,  and where I choose to seek it, are determined by my personal psyche at this moment. So am I just finding myself, not anything “outside” me? Is the Hierophant just a Rorschach test?

Traditional religion mistrusts the self. The heart is deceitful above all things, the Bible warns. Accountability to a community, a deity, or a sacred text is required to keep us from falling into self-indulgent delusion. As I’ve said before, growing up with a “spiritual but not religious” narcissist made this line of reasoning plausible to me in my youth. However, because I came to religion as an adult, with no peer pressure to pick any particular tradition, I couldn’t make myself forget that the choice had been mine, not handed down from on high. Believe in the inerrant Bible? Okay, but fallible you made the initial decision that the Bible was more reliable than the Koran or the fortune cookie at lunch. I also discovered, over the years, that skilled narcissists can manipulate any religious accountability structure in their favor. The doctrine of self-mistrust is a perfect way to hide your own biases behind a convenient Bible verse, while gaslighting victims whose only authority comes from their personal experience.

“I’m not looking for a guru,” I told Carolyn at our initial meeting. “I want to use Tarot to get in touch with my own intuition.”

Or so I thought…

The cards we drew from the beautiful contemporary Gaian Tarot deck continue to reveal nuances of meaning as I reflect on them this week. We asked a two-part question about my movement through Christianity into Tarot. What am I retaining and losing from my old faith; how should I approach this new path and who is my support?

The cards in the first series, about Christianity, had muted tones and shady woodland settings. One showed spawning salmon and fish bones (resurrected Christ?), the others were solitary pensive women. All the cards in the second series, about Tarot, made my heart leap up. They were some of the most colorful cards in the deck. The women in them were sensual, confidently standing in sunlight, and rejoicing in their connection to other people and animals. The card for “Who is my support?” was The Seeker, a/k/a The Fool: a young girl who, we agreed, represented my inner child.

Among other things, the spread suggests that although I’m following a more individualistic spiritual path, I’m heading toward more connection to others. I came to Christianity from a place of fear and isolation. It protected me from psychological dangers that were real in my personal life, but which the religion also encouraged me to project onto the world as a whole. Now I’m pursuing the life force rather than running away from death.

Right after I left Carolyn’s studio, however, my inner critic was ascendant. What did I learn that I didn’t already know? I feel stifled by my current worldview and want a fresh one. I feel joy calling to me from a new direction but a lot of shame about being ungrateful and unfaithful to my old communities. This is not exactly news, but I think some part of me did want a guru to make the decision for me. I was secretly hoping for the cards to make those painful feelings go away.

I think there is accountability in Tarot. The cards don’t tell me what to do, but my reaction to them tells me where my heart is. And my life, especially my creative work, reveals the consequences of following or not following my heart.

But I’m still not buying a bong.

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